An unprecedented fuel spill that has polluted huge stretches of Arctic rivers was caused by melting permafrost, Russian officials said Friday, ordering a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones.
The spill — which has colored remote tundra waterways with bright red patches visible from space — has highlighted the danger of climate change for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid warmer temperatures.
News of the cause of the accident came amid a huge cleanup effort outside the Arctic city of Norilsk which President Vladimir Putin said should be bankrolled by metals giant Norilsk Nickel.
A national-level state of emergency was announced after 21,000 tonnes of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed last Friday.
Norilsk Nickel owns the reservoir through a subsidiary.
Three criminal probes have been launched, and Russia’s prosecutor general’s office said in a statement that preliminary findings indicate sagging ground as the reason for the disaster.
“To prevent a similar situation on especially hazardous structures on territories prone to melting of permafrost,” the prosecutor general has “ordered a comprehensive review of such objects,” it said.
Norilsk, one of the country’s biggest industrial centers, lies above the Arctic circle and Norilsk Nickel had already said it suspects permafrost thawing.
Other factors may be at play too: the country’s technical safety watchdog told TASS news agency that since 2016, it has been unable to check the condition of the 35-year-old reservoir, because the company said it was under repairs.
The metals giant tried to contain the damage on its own for two days before specialists were called in from companies and agencies across Russia and managed to stop the spill from spreading further.
Speaking with officials at the site by video call, Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin he expected the company to pay for a comprehensive cleanup.
“It’s necessary to carry out all the compensatory measures to restore biodiversity and the environment,” he said.
Potanin estimated that the operations would cost about 10 billion rubles ($146 million), on top of any fines.
“We will spend whatever is needed,” said Potanin. “We will return the ecosystem back to normal.”
Russia’s environmental watchdog Svetlana Radionova said the damage was being calculated, and called the accident “unprecedented in scope”.
– Worst spill in Arctic history –
A vast Arctic state, Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the world average.
Sixty-five percent of the country is covered by permafrost and the environment ministry warned in 2018 that the melt threatens pipes and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways.
Northern regions have also rung the alarm, with the eastern Arctic Yakutia area for years lobbying Moscow to pass legislation protecting permafrost.
Environmentalists said the spill was the worst such accident ever in the Arctic region and the second worst in modern Russian history.
The Ambarnaya River, which is affected by the spill, feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is vitally important to the entire Taimyr peninsula.
Satellite images released by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos show a large spot of reddish fuel had travelled over 20 kilometres (12 miles) toward the lake from the spill site.
Russia’s fisheries agency and some environmentalists have said that the floating barriers erected on the river by responders are unable to stop the majority of the pollution, which can quickly dissolve or sink.
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – More than a week after Israeli police shot dead an unarmed and autistic Palestinian in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called the killing a tragedy and offered his condolences to the family.
Iyad al-Halaq, 32, was killed during a police chase in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 30. A police spokesman said at the time officers suspected he was carrying a weapon.
The police internal affairs division is investigating the shooting.
“What happened to Iyad al-Halaq is a tragedy. This was a man with disabilities, autism, who was suspected – and we (now) know wrongly – of being a terrorist in a very sensitive venue,” Netanyahu said in comments that stopped short of an apology.
Palestinians have drawn comparisons between the Palestinian man’s fatal encounter with police and the death in the United States of African-American George Floyd after a police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck while detaining him.
Hundreds of people attended Halaq’s funeral a week ago.
Palestinian officials and Halaq’s family said he suffered from severe autism and panicked and ran after the officers confronted him.
“I know that (police) are conducting examinations. We all share in the grief of the family,” Netanyahu said in public remarks to his cabinet.
Addressing Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is responsible for police, at the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: “I expect your full investigation into this matter.”
A police spokesman could not immediately be reached on Sunday to provide information on whether any action had been taken so far against the officers.
At last week’s cabinet session, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s centrist partner in Israel’s new unity government, publicly apologized for Halaq’s death. The right-wing Netanyahu, sitting next to him, kept silent at the time.
Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Barbara Lewis
Image: FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 7, 2020. Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS